Peasant societies and eschatology
- Dear Dr. Allison,
Thank you for agreeing to this seminar. I read your
book on Q a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Only recently did I finally get around to reading
Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, which I
consider (in all honesty) to be one of the best books
ever written about the historical Jesus. It's
certainly the most illuminating in terms of
comparisons with other millenarian movements, in this
sense improving on and complementing various works
which have tackled the eschatological question
primarily from textual angles (i.e. Sanders,
Theories that Jesus was concerned primarily with the
present age have left me entirely unconvinced. But
there is one particular view that has at least made me
seriously question that Jesus' expectations were
apocalyptic. Context Group members Bruce Malina and
William Herzog have argued (persuasively, I must
admit) against future eschatology on the basis of
peasant-society studies in the Mediterranean. It's
worth quoting Herzog (whose own book I also consider
one of the finest available) at some length here.
"Peasants in the Mediterranean area typically are
oriented to the present rather than the past or
future, but not the present as Bultmann interpreted
it, the existential moment detached from past and
future. The present time orientation of the peasant
included a time horizon shaped by the cycles of
nature, tilling the land, and other rituals that
marked the return of important events, such as
Passover and other pilgrimage festivals...It was a
notion of time as cyclical and processual in nature,
and it reflected the basic operations and conditions
of peasant life. Beyond this present time frame, all
past events and future possibilities existed in
'imaginary time'. IN OTHER WORDS, PEASANTS HAD NO
SENSE OF HISTORICAL OR LINEAR TIME. They existed in an
extended present beyond whose realm all past events
and future possibilities blended together just beyond
their time horizons. So Moses and Joshua were less
inhabitants of a distant historical past than figures
looming on the time horizon separating present from
past. They were close at hand, as the periodic
celebrations in the temple of God's mighty acts made
clear. Since time is cyclical, what has happened is a
clue as to what is happening." (Jesus, Justice, and
the Reign of God, pp 56-57; caps mine)
You of course argue precisely the opposite -- that
Jesus was concerned with the past and future more than
the present -- in discussing the 19 features common to
millenarian movements. I focus on your #9:
"Millenarian movements have been described as
nativistic because they emphasize the value of an
indigenous cultural heritage...oriented to a future
that regains the best of the past -- paradise
regained. 'Millenarian movements are forward looking
not backwards looking movements, yet their vision of
the future usually contains many reinterpreted
elements of [the past]' [Talmon]." (Jesus of Nazareth:
Millenarian Prophet, pp 87-88)
I have taken it rather for granted that the Jesus
movement was eschatological/millenarian in the manner
you (and others) have described and have found the
many criticisms of Crossan, Borg, and Patterson
devastating enough to my satisfaction. But how would
you critique the above citation of Herzog? I've yet to
see a successful refutation of this particular
argument against future eschatology.
Thanks in advance,
Loren Rosson III
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- Dear Loren:
Thanks for your question, which I don't think I've addressed anywhere before. Let me take a stab at it by making four points.
First, I don't think that my view of Jesus requires much in the way of theoretical or sophisticated perceptions of time, only an awareness that the future can be different from the past, and a hope that God's future will be better than the present. I see no reason at all to think that Mediterranean peasants did not have such awareness or could not have had such hope. The canonical prophets are full of such stuff, aren't they? Of course, we're talking about what people thought, and ancient peasants haven't left us essays on their conceptions of time. Nonetheless, while I may be showing my lack of imagination here, I just can't fathom that ancient Jews couldn't recognize something more than just the rhythyms of the seasons. History--the rise and fall of kings, wars, etc.--does not follow the natural cycles; and Jews had plenty of history--even peasants in the fields, if they knew any of the biblical stories.
Second, what does one do with the linear schemes in Jewish apocalyptic literature? Daniel has the vision of the four beasts that represent an historical progression, and the book actually ends with an apocalyptic time-table! The Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch outlines a linear history from Adam to the judgment of the nations and the angels. The Testament of Moses offers something very similar. And this is ancient Mediterranean material. Even the Bible, come to think of it, offers a linear history--Adam then Noah then Abrham then Isaac then Jacob then Moses then Joshua, etc. Even if Jesus was a peasant (see below), it is not silly to suppose that he heard might have heard Daniel in the synagogue or somehow have come into contact with other apocalypses. Even if he didn't, their existence shows the ability of thinking in a linear way within an Mediterranean eschatological scheme. What am I missing?
Third, I don't know that I want to consider Jesus a peasant. Nor am I quite sure what it would mean to say he was. But if one protests that the books I've just cited were written by scribes, and that Jesus wasn't a scribe, then I'd respond by quoting from John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1, p. 276: "If we take into account that Jesus' adult life became fiercely focused on the Jewish religion, that he is presented by almost all the Gospel traditions as engaging in learned disputes over Scripture and halaka with students of the Law, that he was accorded the respectful--but at that time vague--title of rabbi or teacher, that more than one Gospel tradition presents him preaching or teaching in the synagogues . . . and that, even apart from formal disputes, his teaching was strongly imbued with the outlook and language of the sacred texts of Israel, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus' religious formation in his family was intense and profound, and included instruction in reading biblical Hebrew." I came to a similar conclusion after doing the research for my book, The Intertextual Jesus, in which I found so many sayings that interact with Jewish exegetical tradition. I can't attribute all of that interaction to Q scribes. So whether he learned to read or studied in a synagogue, I don't know; but I think it reasonable to think that Jesus learned about the Bible and attendant traditions; so I don't consider it out of line to cite the texts I did above. Whether Jesus did this as a peasant is not a question relevant at this point.
Fourth, I think that there is some need for caution in making generalizations about Mediterranean culture and then reading Jesus in those terms. We can appeal to such generalizations if they help explain items that otherwise need explaining; but I doubt that we should be reading the texts on assumptions drawn from elsewhere unless the texts clearly invite it. My own millenarian model does not dictate how I read the tradition but rather illuminates what I think I've already found there. I think that's the way models should work. But in the case of dismissing an apocalpytic reading of Jesus by dismissing linear time from the synoptics, this it seems to me is not reading out but reading in. There are some helpful words of caution in David Horrell, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 78 (2000), 83ff.
Thanks for the critique of Malina and Herzog; you
offered some intuitive objections which tend to target
my own. Now turning to another topic...
I enjoyed the chapter-drafts about Gehenna and Jesus'
audiences, particularly your remark about "history
being full of people who wax eloquently about God's
love one minute only to threaten with divine vengeance
the next". (Gehenna, p 16) How true. I have a couple
of questions/suggestions about the unattractively
judgmental nature of Jesus' rhetoric.
You note that most of the Gehenna/hell statements
concern or address outsiders, either positively (as in
Q 11:31-32; Q 13:24,25-27; Q 17:30,34-35; Lk 16:19-31)
or negatively (Q 10:13-15; Q 13:28-29) -- either
"opening the door to repentance or shutting it" (p
30). There can be little doubt that the latter set of
texts (the woes against the Galilean cities and the
judgment about those who will be excluded from the
messianic banquet with the patriarchs) shut off the
possibility of salvation to those being targeted. But
I would suggest that some of the sayings from the
former set are equally grim.
For instance, the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus
(Lk. 16:19-31), which you place in the first category,
seems to write off the rich in the same way Q 10:13-15
and 13:28-29 exclude certain groups of people from the
kingdom. Just as Lazarus was unable to pass through
the rich man's gate in life, so too the rich man is
unable to cross the chasm separating Hades from
paradise, much as he wants to. Moreover, when he begs
Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers -- so they may
possibly repent and avoid his own hellish fate --
Abraham makes plain that their repentance is
impossible: "they will not be convinced [to repent]
even if someone comes to them from the dead" (I take
verse 31 as a gloss: Luke substituted "rises" for
"comes to them", alluding to Jesus' resurrection,
which makes for a nonsensical conclusion). This would
indicate that Jesus really did believe a camel would
more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a
rich man enter the kingdom; that most of the rich were
consigned to hell. It makes for an unattractive Jesus,
but a very believable one.
JESUS AND HIS AUDIENCES
Comparing Q 6:27-49 (Sermon on the Plain) to Q
11:39-52 (Woes and diatribes against the Pharisees and
scribes), you argue that the former is addressed to
those who already on Jesus' side, whether from (1) his
inside circle or (2) the wider public. The latter is
addressed to (3) his adversaries. "It would make no
sense for those woes to encourage people or to tell
them that God will take care of them. Nor would it
make sense to demand of them ethical behavior that
presupposes a positive response to Jesus and his
theology. They rather need to be motivated to change
their ways. Q 11:39-52 does this...through an
unqualified dire threat of judgment." (p 31)
Two points here. First, I'm not sure why it wouldn't
make sense for a man who exhorted those to "love one's
enemies" to refrain from encouraging those same
enemies and assuring them that God would ultimately
take care of them. It could actually make a lot of
sense to do this. (I, for instance, was raised by
certain family members and teachers to try "killing
with kindness" before "fighting fire with fire" --
even when dealing with enemies -- and to steer clear
of making judgments about the ultimate fate of others'
souls.) Second, I have a hard time believing that the
diatribes leveled in Q 11:39-52 would have seriously
"motivated the Pharisees and scribes to change their
ways" or that Jesus was under any such delusions.
But I agree with you that the differences between
(say) Q 6:27-49 and Q 11:39-52 have nothing to do with
different origins (nor even evolution in thought,
apropos Bob Schacht's suggestion), rather different
rhetorical strategies. The former, as you note, is a
challenge to insiders or public sympathizers, and that
"given this, it is only natural that the theme of
judgment is peripheral" (30). I wouldn't say, however,
that the latter had as its chief intent "motivating
outsiders [Jesus' foes] to change their ways". His
threats and insults were based simply on what honor
demanded in an agonistic culture. Q 11:39-52 is
essentially a catalog of insults, the kind that could
perhaps get you beaten or killed, yet in some contexts
necessary in order to be taken seriously in public and
gain respect and prestige (honor). Would any of the
Pharisees have been moved to "a change of heart" after
having diatribes like this heaped on them in public?
These are nit-picky points more than anything else. We
agree more than disagree.
Loren Rosson III
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- Dear Loren:
Thanks for the questions and observations. It's hard to sit here and play the wise man with the answers because I don't feel that I have all the answers--certainly to the questions you've posed here. Your first observation is that maybe I've underestimated the harshness of some of the sayings about judgment. Now I've gone back and looked at my precise wording. I wrote that "perhaps" we can understand most of the units I cited as functioning as repentance. When I wrote perhaps, I really meant it. I suppose here I'm partly the victim of my own hope, because I'd like to have Jesus writing off as few people as possible. But I did hedge my bet. What I was doing was saying that I could imagine most of the sayings functioning one way, but there were a couple I couldn't imagine functioning that way. I think you're suggesting Loren that you find more than a couple. Maybe you're right, although I don't see that my main points would be altered. Re the rich man and Lazarus, it is harsh, but it does seem to me to be different than Q 10:13-15 and Q 13:28-29 in that it doesn't address a "you." It's a story not addressed directly to a particular rich person as far as we know. So its character is different on that score. Maybe I should in fact consider it as not for outsiders but insiders, with a view toward bringing comfort to poor followers of Jesus. This audience thing really is complicated, isn't it? Unfortuantely, I agree that a Jesus who condemns the rich is believable. Let's hope there weren't many of them.
Your other observations are about the chapter on Jesus and his audiences. You argue first that it might make sense for the man who taught people to love enemies to encourage those enemies and even tell them God will take care of them. I agree, and I wish Jesus had done just that. But I see no evidence that he did. You are right, however, to call me on how I expressed myself. I need to speak from Jesus' point of view rather than making a seeming generalization about human behavior. Thanks for the correction.
Your second point is that you doubt whether Q 11:39-52 could ever have been used to motivate change. You may be right. All this is very subjective, and I will have to go back and rethink how I want to classify this material. But I was presupposing that the material in Q 11:39-52 is a post-Easter collection, and that our pre-Easter interpretation will have to sort what might go back to Jesus and then interpret it in isolation. Wouldn't you agree that it would be easier to see a different function for the material if it's removed from its present context? I agree completely that in Q there is no chance of repentance; the woes are for insiders who are united by the condemnation of outsiders. But that need not be the pre-Easter situation. But again, I've probably been too optimistic here. Like everybody else, I'd like to domesticate Jesus.
One other thought occurs, although its just a throw away. I wonder what the distance is here between us and the ancients. If you read Luther or Calvin, they are vicious. We are much more sensitive than people before us. We don't want to hurt others' feelings. Lots of people avoid conflict because they are nice. Q 11 is foreign to so many of us. But Jesus lived in a very different world. Perhaps people heard and responded to insults differently than we do? They paralyze us. Maybe we shouldn't generalize from our experience? Who knows? Again, just a thought.
Thank you for another satisfying reply -- and for the
"throw-away" thought at the end too. Luther, indeed,
was as about vicious as they came, and it's sad that a
lot of his nastiness can be traced to the surface of
Jesus' own rhetoric. Sad but true.
I'd like to follow up on my first post, to which you
had responded by critiquing William Herzog's argument
against future eschatology with four reasonable
objections. You wrote:
"I don't think that my view of Jesus requires much in
the way of theoretical or sophisticated perceptions of
time, only an awareness that the future can be
different from the past, and a hope that God's future
will be better than the present. I see no reason at
all to think that Mediterranean peasants did not have
such awareness or could not have had such hope. The
canonical prophets are full of such stuff, aren't
Indeed, the prophets (whether classical, clerical,
oracular, or popular) stand as the most intuitively
obvious objection against Herzog's summary-statement,
which I should have clarified a bit more. He bases his
argument on Bruce Malina's more lengthy presentation
set forth in an essay called "Christ and Time: Swiss
or Mediterranean?", reprinted in The Social World of
Jesus and the Gospels. The upshot of Malina's analysis
lies in distinguishing between "forthcoming" (which is
really present-focused, and the focus of peasants) and
"future" (which is indeed the domain of the prophets)
Here's a snap-shot of Malina's presentation:
"Peasant societies invariably have the present as
first-order temporal preference; secondary preference
is past; and the future comes in as third choice...For
members of Jesus-movement groups, God's Kingdom was
forthcoming, Jesus' emergence as messiah with power
was forthcoming, the transformation of social
realities in favor of God's people was forthcoming.
Yet for the audiences of Mark, Matthew, and Luke,
things changed. The coming of Jesus was moved into
imaginary time...In the New testament writings, we can
see how the forthcoming became future, how the
experienced became imaginary...Jesus was once
perceived by present-oriented people as the
forthcoming messiah with power. This perception was
rooted in actual, experienced time situated in an
operational realm abuting the horizon of the present.
Given the press of events, however, this perception
had subsequently proceeded beyond that horizon into
the realm of the possible, of the future rooted in
imaginary time...accessible only to [Christian]
prophets." (pp 182,193,208)
Malina concludes that for peasants no tension exists
between the "now" and "not yet" -- since both are
subsumed under a rather broad "now", any future
dimension understood as immediately "forthcoming"
which impinges directly on (or is actualized in) the
present. The (non forthcoming) future, on the other
hand, as the realm of the possible, belongs
exclusively to God who speaks through his prophets.
(See pp 210-211.) What puzzles me is that Herzog, who
cites Malina with enthusiasm, presents Jesus as a
prophet (!), which would logically imply that Jesus
was apocalyptic but his followers were not. (That
stands a significant amount of scholarship on its
head.) So Herzog either undercuts his own thesis with
Malina, or undercuts Malina with his own thesis (I'm
not sure which.)
Anyway, my point here is to clarify a particular
argument against Jesus as a future eschatologist,
which (1) distinguishes between "forthcoming" and
"future" and (2) advances that prophets (or elites, or
scribes) were the ones who were really concerned with
the latter. But I have serious doubts about all this
-- and I'm very suspicious of Malina's distinction
between "forthcoming" and "future". It smacks of a
semantic game whereby the unattractive "future" is
conveniently banished away from Jesus.
You also wrote:
"If one protests that the books I've just cited were
written by scribes, and that Jesus wasn't a scribe,
then I'd respond by quoting from John Meier, A
Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1,
p. 276: 'If we take into account that Jesus' adult
life became fiercely focused on the Jewish religion,
that he is presented by almost all the Gospel
traditions as engaging in learned disputes over
Scripture and halaka with students of the Law, that he
was accorded the respectful--but at that time
vague--title of rabbi or teacher, that more than one
Gospel tradition presents him preaching or teaching in
the synagogues . . . and that, even apart from formal
disputes, his teaching was strongly imbued with the
outlook and language of the sacred texts of Israel, it
is reasonable to suppose that Jesus' religious
formation in his family was intense and profound, and
included instruction in reading biblical Hebrew.' I
came to a similar conclusion after doing the research
for my book, The Intertextual Jesus, in which I found
so many sayings that interact with Jewish exegetical
tradition. I can't attribute all of that interaction
to Q scribes."
Neither can I, nor would I think Malina/Herzog. But
the question isn't so much if Jesus was well-versed in
this stuff (which I think he was, like you and Meier),
rather the sort of temporal framework into which he
"I think that there is some need for caution in making
generalizations about Mediterranean culture and then
reading Jesus in those terms. We can appeal to such
generalizations if they help explain items that
otherwise need explaining; but I doubt that we should
be reading the texts on assumptions drawn from
elsewhere unless the texts clearly invite it."
I agree, and for the most part I believe Context Group
members succeed in using social-scientific models
properly to illuminate what is implied by the textual
data. But on the subject of future (or apocalyptic)
eschatology, I admit that they appear to be inverting
the data to fit the model.
Thanks again, Dale. Any additional thoughts are
Loren Rosson III
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- Dear Loren
Thought I'd escaped the Mediterranean peasant trap, but my hope was premature. So here's another round. This will be much shorter, because I stand by what I said earlier.
1. I first read Malina's CBQ article on Christ and Time when it came out. I scratched my head; I didn't understand it. I then reread it years later when writing Millenarian Prophet. I thought I should refer to it. But again I didn't think I really understood it. So I didn't refer to it. I reread it again this morning. Once more, I'm nonplussed. I hesitate to be critical of something I haven't been able to take in. Futher, Malina has had a great deal of influence; I'm enthusiastic about his larger project of getting outside of our modern ways of thinking if we want to figure out the past; and I have this fear that someday a lightbulb is going to go off and I'll see the light. The mystery of the kingdom of peasants will be given to me so that seeing I will see, etc. But it hasn't happened yet, so I'm left quietly to wonder about distinctions that don't, because of some defect in me or in Malina's article--take your pick--work for me. Candidly, if this forum hadn't forced me into this, I wouldn't say anything; it makes me very, very nervous to talk about something I don't get. What follows, then, is not criticism; I'm being purely interrogatory.
2. One thing that strikes me about Malina's article is that it is full of generalities but no real, detailed exegesis. At one point he asks about the meaning of Mark 13:30 and 9:1. But he nowhere tells me in detail how we should read these if they go back to Jesus. Perhaps he thinks that they don't or couldn't. This is unclear to me. In any case, I want to see concrete application of his generalities to concrete texts. Maybe someone in this seminar can direct me to such. Until I see such, I can't be a convert.
3. At one point he Malina writes that Jesus movement groups understood things differently than the audiences of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The former knew of the kingdom as forthcoming, the latter as future. I think this implies that the audiences of Matthew, Mark, and Luke weren't peasants, otherwise they would only have be able to give things forthcoming sense. This makes me uneasy. This division between Jesus and the evangelists seems analogous to apologetical moves that have had the goal of saving Jesus at the expense of the church. E.g. Jesus didn't announce a near end; it was just his followers and the evangelists who thought this; we now know better. But I'm cynical here. If our sources got things wrong, I don't know how we can do any better. I think we're stuck with the sources, for better or worse. When they don't give us memory, I doubt that we can make up the lack. In the present case, if the sources have a future sense of things, I'm leery about saying that Jesus had some other sense.
4. Towards the end in a fn. Malina endorses Borg's article on a non-eschatological Jesus. Marcus' article of course gives us a non-eschatological Jesus by removing certain things from the tradition (e.g. the future Son of man sayings). This raises interesting questions for me. Would Malina say that Jesus the Mediterranean peasant simply couldn't have uttered the future Son of man sayings? Or would he say that they just don't mean what so many of us have thought they must mean? In any case, by citing Borg, Malina may imply that his Jesus arises not just from interpretation but from historical-critical sifting of the materials. If so, does his model of time serve as a tool in that sifting? That would make me very uncomfortable. Or is it just that Borg's historical-critical results happen to coincide with Malina's view of a peasant? (Btw, maybe for some it seems old-fashioned, but I still can't bring myself to believe that all of the future Son of man sayings come from the church; Chris Tuckett has a good article on this in The Sayings Source Q and the Historical Jesus, edited by A. Lindemann. So I've got a Jesus with future Son of man sayings. Does this mean my Jesus can't be a peasant? Or do the Son of man sayings not work with future time?)
5. The prophet question is an interesting one. Do we think that Jewish peasants in Galilee heard the prophets read? I think that Jesus did. If he was a Mediterranean peasant, how did he hear the prophets? Malina draws a distinction between peasant and prophet in their understandings of time. So how did a peasant hear the prophets? And could a prophetic text not have made a peasant move beyond the forthcoming?
6. With you Loren, I'm still cloudy about this forthcoming/future distinction. It remains very abstract. I think moderns are more present oriented than Malina says, which encourages me to think that maybe old peasants could have been more future oriented than he thinks. I hesitate to say "semantic game" because it's possible I'm missing something here; Malina would certainly think I am. So again I want some exegesis of specific texts that go back to Jesus so I can see what Malina is saying to us.
7. Finally, Malina wonders why the NT doesn't look forward to future generations. For me, this is because none of its writers expected there to be future generations. They hoped for a near end, which they thought would make things very different (Jesus seems to think there won't be any marriage). This is what we see again and again in world-wide millenarian movements, isn't it? I prefer the millenarian model, which shows me oppressed peoples often focused on the future, which will undo and reverse the present, which is miserable, to the Mediterranean peasant model. Maybe, since I don't understand things, the two models can work together. Yet I note that on p. 9 Malina seems to question whether any early Christians were "millenarists, as defined today." Maybe he thinks the models are antagonistic.
Hope that's enough for now. Had insomnia last night; time to get some rest.